If you read my blog regularly you know that I am constantly singing the praise of consistent use of positive reinforcement for all of those correct and appropriate behaviors that we see from our kids. Remember, we want to see more and more of those behaviors so adding that positive reinforcement is key to keep those behaviors coming. But what do we do when our student gets an incorrect answer? How do we respond then? Providing consistently and thought-out error correction to incorrect responses is almost just as important as giving loads of positive reinforcement for the correct responses. 

Remove Reinforcement

So this should seem obvious but sometimes it’s not. When a child responds incorrectly, remove reinforcement. That means no praise no “great trying.” Yes they did do a great job trying but that’s confusing.

I’ve watched many amazing teachers provide such sweet and praise filled “no you didn’t get that right” that I wasn’t even sure if the student got the answer right or wrong. I am by no means advocating being mean or harsh. But there is a big difference between a nasty, “That’s wrong. You’re horrible” (said in low, evil dictator voice) and “You’re amazing but that is also maybe not totally correct” (said in princess sunshine voice). Let’s shoot for somewhere in the middle. My goal is indifferent. Keep in mind many of our students struggle with complex receptive language, so keep it simple. I like a straightforward, “no” and move on. It’s not being mean. It’s teaching them a new skill and we want them to demonstrate the new skill correctly. 

Block or Interrupt Response (if possible)

This might not always be possible depending on the type of skill you are teaching but try to catch them before they emit the incorrect response. If you are are working on teaching a student to match colored shapes, as he starts putting the blue circle on top of the green triangle provide a partial physical prompt and maneuver that hand right over to the correct spot. Again, not always feasible but the goal is to not give him the opportunity to make a mistake (remember errorless learning?). 

Help Them Get it Right

Here is where that prompting stuff comes back. I know, you thought you were done with prompting forever. But prompting is a teaching tool remember? And your student had an incorrect answer so we know he needs some help. After your student had an incorrect answer, you can say a neutral “no” or “that’s not right” if you want. Then represent the same teaching cue (or contrive the natural cue again). So if you asked your student to find blue and he pointed to green ask him again to point to blue. Then, immediately provide a prompt so he gets the answer correct. So immediately use a verbal, gestural, or physical prompt to ensure he gets the answer correct this time. Then provide that reinforcer right away. 

Distract and Assess

So he got the answer correct on the second time with your help (prompt). What do you do know? Move on forever and forget it happened? Nope. Time to double check. I like to throw in a distractor trial here. Something you know your student can do that is unrelated to the current task. If you are working on naming personal info, have them clap their hands or point to a body part. Something quick and easy. The point is to distract only for a quick minute. 

After you’ve done a distractor trial, time to represent that original trial again – that same exact original question that he got wrong. You want to see if your prompt was successful and helpful. So provide the originally question again. If he gets it wrong, start back over at the top with the prompting. 

This whole shebang of questions and answers still counts as ONE TRIAL. And it all counts as incorrect. So even though you are providing a prompt and the student is getting it correct and then error correction and re-providing the prompt – it’s all part of that original question. You are just doing some additional teaching. 

Save the Big Time Reinforcement for the Correct Responses

Remember step 1? Removing Reinforcement can be tricky when we add in all these other steps. You can provide some low magnitude reinforcement like praise in my examples for the promoting trial, distractor trial, and assessment trial but keep it minimal. Your goal should always be to save the big, major, fun, amazing reinforcement for the correct responses. We don’t want to teach our students that you give a wrong answer, the teacher helps you, and you still get a gummy bear. He won’t buy the cow if he gets the milk for free. Make sure that reinforcer is only coming for those great, appropriate, correct responses that we want to see more and more of!